Spartans a mystery heading into Big Ten Tournament

Spartans a mystery heading into Big Ten Tournament
March 10, 2014, 1:00 pm
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Vinnie Duber

Michigan State seemed to have it all figured out when they torched Iowa last week. Then came Sunday’s loss at Ohio State.

Now, the Buckeyes are a fine team and were playing on their home court, and the Spartans are clearly no longer the dominant force they were during the first half of the season. But still, this up-and-down stretch for Tom Izzo’s crew seems to keep going without an end in sight.

It’s a team that played so well through one critical injury after another. It led nearly every opposing coach to proclaim that once the Spartans reached full strength, they’d be one of the country’s best squads. But now that full strength has come to the green and white, only confusion has followed.

Michigan State is the three seed in the conference tournament, which begins Thursday in Indianapolis. The Spartans play their first game Friday against the winner of Iowa and Northwestern. But a team that figured to be destined for at least the championship game is a total mystery at this point.

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After running roughshod over nearly everyone in its path, jumping out to an 18-1 record in the process, Michigan State has been purely mediocre ever since its first conference loss to in-state rival Michigan back on Jan. 25. Including that game against the Wolverines, the Spartans finished the season 5-7. That includes a non-conference defeat to Georgetown and a pair of unexpected home losses to Nebraska and Illinois. In the span, the Spartans haven’t had consecutive wins.

And though Michigan State has battled injuries all season, the strangeness of all this is that it comes as the team has brought everyone off the injury list. Adreian Payne’s foot injury is a thing of the past, Branden Dawson is back from his broken hand, and Keith Appling is in the lineup every game, despite obviously battling the effects of his wrist injury.

The Spartans might not be 100 percent, but at least everybody’s playing.

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But that hasn’t seemed to help. Outside of a pair of wins over formerly ranked Iowa — the Hawkeyes have lost five of six — Michigan State’s wins in this stretch have come against the Big Ten’s lower ranks: Penn State, Northwestern and Purdue. The losses have come to Michigan (twice), Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Spartans are going to need to beat those kinds of teams if they want to win the tournament title.

While the echoes of those coaches’ comments still seem to linger — if the Spartans put it together, they would figure to be one of college basketball’s most dangerous postseason teams — it’s a total unknown whether Michigan State can beat those kinds of teams, be it in this conference tournament or a much bigger one a week later.